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Pentax *ist-D

Pentax's first d-SLR is a winner, with good color, low noise, and excellent "hand feel," all in a compact body.

Review First Posted: 03/30/2004

MSRP $1699 US


First d-SLR designed for compatibility with Pentax system components.
6.3-megapixel CCD, 3,008 x 2,008 pixel images.
ISO range from 200 to 3200
Shooting-priority design, touch shutter button in Play mode, and camera will snap a picture.
Compatible with all Pentax K-mount lenses
Excellent user interface, many clever (and useful) features.


Manufacturer Overview
The *ist D (also known simply as the Pentax ISTD or IST-D) is currently the most advanced digital camera available from Pentax. Pentax is a camera maker with a long tradition in the film-based world, but a relative newcomer to the digital arena. They initially co-developed several cameras with Hewlett Packard, but now have stepped out on their own, with digicams entirely of their own design. Their "Optio" line of compact digicams are widely known for their compact designs and rich feature sets, featuring point-and-shoot control with a few additional exposure features, great for average shooting situations.

With the *ist D, Pentax introduces a true digital SLR with a traditional 35mm body style. The Pentax K lens mount accepts most Pentax K lenses, and will be a big draw for enthusiasts already shooting with Pentax film cameras. The *ist D has a 6.31-megapixel CCD for high quality images, a full range of exposure control modes, and enough custom settings to tailor the camera to specific needs. In a field that's rapidly becoming crowded with d-SLR models, the *ist D holds its own very well, in terms of image quality, capabilities, features, and shooting experience. Read on for all of the details!


Executive Overview
After much success with their Optio line of consumer digicams, Pentax has now ventured into the high end of the prosumer digicam market, releasing a true digital SLR, the *ist D. Surprisingly compact and light weight for a digital SLR, the *ist D looks a lot like a traditional 35mm SLR, and ought to make current Pentax film camera owners feel quite at home with its familiar styling. Featuring a Pentax K lens mount, the *ist D accepts a wide range of Pentax lenses, which should make the transition from film to digital even easier for current Pentax users. The *ist D features a 6.31-megapixel (6.10 effective) CCD, which delivers high quality images as large as 3,008 x 2,008 pixels. Though built around a stainless steel chassis, the *ist D has plastic (yet rugged) outer panels, which help keep the weight down, while retaining a pleasant heft. Without the lens, the body weighs about 24.7 ounces (701 grams) with memory card and batteries installed, which is fairly light weight by d-SLR standards. The camera is also pretty compact, at only 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.4 inches (129 x 95 x 60 millimeters). In fact, Pentax boasts that the *ist D is one of the world's smallest, lightest camera bodies for its class.

Like most digital SLRs, the *ist D's 1.8-inch color LCD monitor is reserved for image playback and menu display. For framing, the camera offers an accurate TTL optical viewfinder, complete with information display so you can quickly check on the exposure settings. (There's also a top status display panel which reports more detailed camera information.) A dioptric adjustment adjusts the eyepiece for eyeglass wearers, and a soft, rubbery cup provides some cushion when peering through the viewfinder. The *ist D features Pentax's newly-developed SAFOX VIII phase-matching autofocus system, which uses 11 AF points across the image area. (And which our tests indicate provides exceptional low-light focusing ability.) You can manually set the AF area, or leave it up to the camera. Focal ranges will vary depending on the lens in use, but you can select Single or Continuous AF modes, or switch over to manual focus.

When it comes to exposure, the *ist D offers "Green" Program AE (full Auto exposure), Hyper Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, and Bulb exposure modes. The main difference between the two Program modes is that Hyper Program AE mode lets you rotate the camera's command dials to select from a range of equivalent exposure settings, while the Green Program mode acts like a full automatic exposure mode. The Mode dial on top of the camera quickly sets the exposure mode, and provides quick access to the White Balance, ISO, and Resolution/Quality settings as well. Exposure settings are easily changed by using a combination of control buttons and dials, and most can be made without delving into the LCD menu system. An extensive Custom Settings menu adjusts a larger range of camera settings, and lets you save as many as three complete sets of adjustments which can be quickly returned to just by selecting a different Custom Settings group. Shutter speeds on the *ist D range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, with the Bulb exposure mode available for even longer exposures (as long as the Shutter button or remote control shutter button is held down, and the camera has power). A Noise Reduction option helps reduce the amount of image noise resulting from longer exposures and higher sensitivity settings. You can adjust the overall exposure from -3 to +3 exposure equivalents (EV) in either one-third or one-half step increments, and choose between 16-segment Multi, Center-Weighted, and Spot exposure metering modes. Light sensitivity ranges from 200 to 3,200 ISO equivalent settings, while White Balance options include Auto, Manual, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Fluorescent (white, neutral, or daylight), Tungsten, and Flash options.

The *ist D's Drive setting offers Auto Exposure Bracketing, Consecutive Shooting, Self-Timer, and Remote Control modes. The auto bracketing feature takes three consecutive exposures of the same subject at different exposure settings (the variation of which either you or the camera can control). Consecutive Shooting mode lets you capture a rapid series of images at short frame intervals (about five consecutive frames at intervals of 0.41 seconds in my testing). The total number of frames and the shooting speed depends on exposure, resolution and quality settings, and the amount of available memory card space. Self-Timer mode offers a 12-second countdown before firing the shutter, while the Remote Control mode enables the camera to work with the optional IR remote unit. There's also a Multiple Exposure mode, which lets you combine as many as nine separate exposures to create one image. You can also manually adjust Contrast, Sharpness, and Saturation settings. Built into the *ist D is a pop-up flash unit, which operates in Auto, Auto with Red-Eye Reduction, On, Off, and Red-Eye Reduction modes. For a more powerful flash or more control over the flash exposure, the *ist D also has a top-mounted hot shoe for connecting Pentax dedicated external flash units, as well as a secondary X-sync terminal for connection to off-camera strobe systems.

Three main image resolutions are available (3,008 x 2,008; 2,400 x 1,600; and 1,536 x 1,024 pixels), with an option to access two smaller resolutions if needed. Image quality options include Good, Better, and Best JPEG compression levels, as well as uncompressed TIFF and RAW data formats. Image storage is on CompactFlash Type I or II, and the *ist D supports MicroDrives for huge on-the-go storage capacity. The camera utilizes either four AA-type batteries or two CR-V3 battery packs for power, or an optional AC adapter. A set of CR-V3 battery packs comes with the camera, but I strongly recommend purchasing a couple of sets of high-capacity NiMH AA batteries and a good charger, and keeping a spare set of batteries charged at all times. Click here to read my "battery shootout" page to see which batteries currently on the market are best, or here for my review of the Maha C-204F charger, my longtime favorite.

The *ist D has a nice selection of exposure controls, which combined with the 6.31-megapixel CCD and Pentax K lens mount, make it a good option for experienced amateurs and Pentax enthusiasts.

Looking a great deal like a traditional Pentax 35mm SLR, the *ist D's 35mm styling should appeal to film enthusiasts who haven't made the switch to digital yet, or Pentax devotees who've been waiting for a digital SLR compatible with their Pentax lenses. Claimed by Pentax to be one of the smallest digital SLRs out on the market, the *ist D does indeed have a very compact body, which is also quite light weight. The *ist D features a stainless steel chassis for hidden strength, but has plastic outer body panels that keep the weight down to just 19.4 ounces (550 grams) without batteries, memory card or lens. Weight for shooting will change of course, with batteries and a lens, but the *ist D is still surprisingly light weight. (Weight with batteries and card is 24.7 ounces, or 701 grams.) The camera's compact case measures 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.4 inches (129 x 95 x 60 millimeters), which is a comfortable size for shooting and travel. A neck strap comes with the camera so you can throw it over a shoulder or keep it securely around your neck, but a small camera case is always a good idea for increased protection when traveling. The *ist D features a Pentax K lens mount, which hosts a wide range of Pentax lenses (another plus for Pentax devotees), and a 6.31-megapixel (6.1 effective) CCD that produces high resolution images with good color.

The front of the camera features the standard Pentax K lens mount with AF coupling. A lock button on the lower right side of the lens (when looking from the rear) unlocks the lens from the mount so that it can be turned and removed. On the left side of the lens are the self-timer LED, X-sync flash terminal, Manual White Balance button, and Focus mode switch. At the top of the large hand grip is the Tv dial (Pentax's term), which adjusts a variety of settings in conjunction with other camera controls, or the LCD menu system.

The hand grip side of the camera is populated by one of the neck strap eyelets, and the memory card compartment door. The hinged compartment door opens from the camera's rear panel with a spring-loaded locking latch, and swings out to reveal the memory card slot and small, black card eject button.

On the opposite side of the camera are the second neck strap eyelet, cable release socket, and PC/Video and DC In jacks. Both of the connector compartments are covered by flexible, rubbery flaps, which remain tethered to the camera. Also visible on this side of the camera is the pop-up flash release button, on the side of the flash compartment.

The top of the camera features the pop-up flash compartment, external flash hot shoe, and a small status display panel. To the left of the flash compartment is the Mode dial, which controls the camera's exposure mode and accesses a few exposure settings as well. On the right side are the Power switch, Shutter button, Green, Drive Mode, and Flash Mode buttons. A series of icons lines the bottom of the status display panel, indicating the available white balance modes. Also on top is a diopter adjustment slider for the optical viewfinder.

The rear panel of the *ist D holds the remaining controls, as well as the LCD monitor and optical viewfinder eyepiece. Lining the left side of the LCD monitor are several command buttons, including the Multiple Exposure/Auto Bracket/DPOF, Menu, Erase, Info, and Playback buttons. To the right of the optical viewfinder eyepiece are the AE-Lock/Protect and Exposure Compensation buttons, followed by the Av dial (which also controls playback zoom and index display settings). Finally, the AF button and Four-Way Arrow Rocker button with Focus Point selector dial are to the right of the LCD monitor. A large indentation on the right side of the rear panel holds your thumb comfortably, balancing out the front hand grip.

The *ist D's flat bottom panel holds the battery compartment, backup battery chamber, metal tripod mount, and a terminal for connecting an accessory battery grip. The battery compartment has a sliding switch that locks it into place, and is just far enough away from the tripod mount to allow quick battery changes while working on a tripod. The battery grip terminal has a sliding cover for protection, and lets you connect the battery handgrip unit, which is helpful for shooting vertically. The circular backup battery compartment cover has a slit for inserting a coin or flat head screwdriver tip for opening, and protects the backup CR2016 lithium battery.

It's hard to get an idea of the scale of a camera from images of it shot in isolation, so I shot the photo above, showing the *ist D with a CompactFlash card in the frame as a size reference. - You can see from this image that the *ist D is indeed very compact.

The *ist D is equipped with an optical viewfinder that works through the lens (the LCD monitor is for image playback and accessing the menu system). A diopter adjustment slider adjusts the view for eyeglass wearers, and a soft, rubbery eyecup provides a little cushioning. Pentax states that the optical viewfinder provides about 95 percent frame coverage, which agrees very well with my own measurements, which showed an actual coverage of 96 percent on my evaluation sample. An illuminated display inside the viewfinder provides an information readout that includes focus indicators, shutter speed, aperture, flash mode, an exposure bar graph, the number of recordable images, and the AE lock indicator.

While the LCD panel on the *ist D isn't usable as a viewfinder, it does provide a great deal of information about your pictures after you've shot them. You can select from views that include no overlaid information, a histogram display, or an overlay with unusually extensive exposure and related image information. The histogram display option graphs the number of pixels there are in the image at each brightness level. The brightness is the horizontal axis, running from black at the left to white at the right. The height of the graph shows the relative number of pixels having each brightness level. This sort of display is very handy for determining under- or overexposure. Ideally, the histogram would stretch across the entire width of the display, using the full range of brightness values available. An underexposed image will have a histogram with all the data lumped on the left-hand side, with nothing reaching all the way to the right. Likewise, an overexposed image will have all the data lumped on the righthand side. A second display reports the various exposure settings, so you can quickly double-check whether or not you had the right saturation or ISO setting, for example.

In Playback mode, the *ist D also offers both a 9-image index view of images on the memory card, as well as a zoomed view, with as much as 12x digital enlargement on captured images, controlled by the Av dial on the rear panel. Once an image has been enlarged, you can then use the Four-Way Arrow Rocker button to pan around within the image. The Av dial also accesses a nine-image index display mode, through which images are navigable via the Four-Way Arrow Rocker button.


Free Photo Lessons

Learn how to use lens aperture to control depth of field - Visit our free Photo Lessons area!

The *ist D features a Pentax K lens mount, which is compatible with a wide range of Pentax lenses. Optical specifications, such as aperture range and focal distances, will vary greatly depending on the lens attached. However, the *ist D offers a sophisticated AF system, which uses 11 points across the frame to determine focus. Nine points are arranged in the center of the frame in a three-by-three array, with two additional points on each side of the array. You can leave the AF area selection up to the camera, or manually select a specific point. The Auto setting of the dial leaves AF point selection under auto control. To manually choose an AF point, turn the Focus Selector dial (surrounding the Four-Way Arrow Rocker button) to the "SEL" position. You can then use the arrow pad to change the selection. The selected AF point is highlighted by a red LED overlay in the viewfinder, but I found that the highlight illumination is a little dim if you're shooting a bright subject, and on my eval unit at least, the location of the highlights was shifted up a little relative to the viewfinder screen. A third position on the Focus Selector dial places the AF point at dead center. An AF button on the rear panel acts as a focus lock, locking the focus independently of the exposure until the Shutter button is pressed.

In my tests, I was surprised by how well the *ist D could achieve focus lock in very dark conditions. While the AF speed slows significantly at low light levels, I found that my test unit of the *ist D could routinely focus at light levels as low as 1/4 foot-candle, and sometimes focus as dark as 1/8 foot-candle, without using its focus-assist illuminator, and with a lens with a maximum aperture of f/4.0. (This is a pretty impressive performance, 1/4 foot-candle corresponds to an exposure time of 8 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 100.)

As noted, the *ist D does have an AF illuminator, which will let it focus in complete darkness. It actually uses a burst of very brief pulses from its flash unit for the AF-assist lighting, which gives it a very good working range. The only problem is, the AF-assist illumination is only available when the flash is enabled, so on the face of it, it looks like you couldn't use it for available-light photography. There is a workaround available though, as long as your subject will cooperate and stay in the same place for a few seconds. The trick is to pop up the flash, half-press the shutter button to trigger the AF mechanism and AF-assist light, then release the shutter button, switch the focus control on the camera's body to "manual," and finally fire the shutter. That's all a little convoluted, but it does at least give you a way to take advantage of the AF assist for available-light shooting.

The *ist D's front-panel Focus Mode switch puts the camera into either Manual, AF Single, or AF Continuous modes. In Manual mode, you adjust the focus using the focus ring on the lens. AF Single mode sets the focus when the Shutter button (or AF button) is halfway pressed, while AF Continuous mode adjusts focus constantly whilst the shutter button is pressed. Continuous mode is good for moving subjects, as it "tracks" a subject using a predictive AF algorithm.


Sensor Cleaning!

Everyone understands that lenses sometimes get dust on them and need to be cleaned, and there are a lot of lens-cleaning cloths, solutions and other accessories on the market that work well. BUT, what do you do when your sensor gets dusty? Dust specks on the sensor tend to show up when shooting at very small apertures, appearing as dark blobs on your images. They're distracting at best, a terrible nuisance at worst, if you end up having to retouch every image to rid of them.

Most of us are naturally leery about the idea of poking around inside the delicate innards of our d-SLRs to wrestle with recalcitrant dust specks. Gently blowing the sensor surface (actually, the surface of the anti-aliasing filter) with compressed air gets rid of some dust, but there's invariably a lot that just stays stuck, no matter what. So what do you do?

If you've got dust specks on your sensor (and sooner or later you will), you're going to need to clean it. There are a lot of products out there intended to address this need, but a distressing number of them work poorly (if at all), and many are grossly overpriced. Advertising hype is rampant, with bogus pseudo-scientific jargon and absurd product claims run rampant. And prices - Did I mention prices? How about $100 for a simple synthetic-bristle brush?

So how do you know what product to use?

We don't pretend to have used everything currently on the market, but can tell you about one solution that worked very well for us. The "Copper Hill" cleaning method is straightforward and safe, and in our routine usage here at Imaging Resource, highly effective. Better yet, the products sold by Copper Hill Imaging are very reasonably priced. Best of all, Nicholas R (proprietor of Copper Hill) has put together an amazingly detailed tutorial on sensor cleaning, free for all.

Sensor cleaning is one of the last things people think about when buying a d-SLR, but it's vital to capturing the best possible images. Take our advice and order a cleaning kit from Copper Hill right along with your d-SLR, so you'll have it close at hand when you need it: You'll be glad you did!

(Other than a few backlinks on their site, we receive no promotional consideration from Copper Hill. We just think their sensor cleaning products are among the best on the market, and like their way of doing business. - We think you will too. Check them out.)


Free Photo Lessons

Learn about white balance and simple lighting techniques for dramatic shots in out free Photo Lessons area!

Exposure control on the *ist D is pretty straightforward, as the camera offers the full range of exposure modes and a detailed set of menu options to choose from. The Mode dial on top of the camera offers Green Program, Hyper Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, and Bulb settings, with shutter speeds from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds available (except in Bulb mode, which is indefinite).

What Pentax calls "Green Program" mode is more like a traditional full Auto mode on other digicams, as the camera automatically controls the entire exposure. Hyper Program AE mode leaves the camera in charge of aperture and shutter speed, but you can turn the Av and Tv command dials to select from a range of equivalent exposure settings. Turning the Tv (front) dial biases the exposure toward shutter speed, while the Av (rear) dial biases the exposure toward more or less depth of field. (You can disable this feature through the Custom settings menu.) The *ist D offers more control over the Program AE mode than most digicams, as you can set up the metering system to bias the exposure toward a faster shutter speed (Hi Speed Program Line) or more depth of field (Depth Program Line). You can adjust the program line through the Custom Function menu, which offers an unusual "MTF" program setting to bias the exposure towards the aperture at which the lens will be at its sharpest, as well as a Normal setting. (This "MTF" mode is unique, as far as I know. It's no secret that most lenses are at their sharpest at medium aperture settings, getting softer and showing more distortion at both very large and very small apertures. What the "MTF" mode tries to do is to set the lens aperture somewhere near its "sweet spot," and then adjust the shutter speed to produce the correct exposure. Pretty slick!)

Shutter and Aperture Priority exposure modes provide control over one exposure variable while the camera controls the other, and Manual mode provides total user exposure control. If the camera disagrees with your chosen settings, the aperture and shutter speed values blink in the status display and viewfinder. An interesting feature in both Manual and Hyper Program modes is the Green button on top of the camera, which returns you to the default metered exposure settings. By default, pressing the button adjusts both aperture and shutter speed to the default exposure, though a Custom menu option sets the button to adjust either aperture or shutter speed only. In Bulb mode, the exposure time is limited only by how long the Shutter button (or cable release) is held down and the amount of battery time available (a good case for the AC adapter). (Of course, there'll be a practical limit to how long you can expose for, as sensor noise will swamp the image of your subject after a while.) There's also a depth-of-field preview feature, accessed by turning the Power switch to the aperture icon. This stops down the lens to the set aperture, giving you an idea of what the depth of field will be, and also turns on the backlight for the top-mounted LCD info display.

ISO can be set to a range of values from 200 to 3,200 by turning the Mode dial to the ISO selection and rotating the Tv dial to select the value. A Custom menu option offers "Wide" and "Normal" ISO ranges, with the Normal setting ranging only from 200 to 1,600, and the Wide setting expanding the available range to 3,200. Like any digital camera, the *ist D's image noise will increase as you boost the ISO setting, but I found that the *ist D generally did very well in the noise department. Its noise levels are generally a bit below those of its competitors, up to ISO levels of 800 or so. (A little lower than the Canon EOS-10D and Digital Rebel, a good bit lower than the Nikon D100.) Beyond that, it does a bit worse than the competition, but not by much.

The *ist D has another handy feature that relates to ISO setting. Called "Sensitivity Correction," it lets the camera automatically adjust the ISO value (either up or down) if your chosen shutter speed or lens aperture in Hyper Program or Shutter or Aperture Priority mode would result in an incorrect exposure with the current ISO setting. You can turn this function on or off via a Custom Function menu entry, but it strikes me as being very useful for times when you care more about just getting the shot than what the particular ISO speed you happen to be shooting at. It's a little like telling the camera: "OK, try to shoot at ISO 400, but if you really have to, go ahead and boost (or cut) the ISO beyond that point to get the shot for me." There will certainly be times when you won't want the camera to do this, but for those times, it's easy enough to just disable this option in the Custom Function menu.

White balance can be set to Auto, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, Fluorescent (with options for white, neutral, and daylight fluorescent lighting), Tungsten, Flash, or Manual modes. In Manual mode, you can set the color balance by holding a white card in front of the lens and pressing the Shutter button while holding down the Manual White Balance button on the front of the camera.

Three metering options are available on the *ist D: 16-segment Multi, Center-Weighted, and Spot. The 16-segment Multi setting divides the image area into 16 zones and determines the level of brightness in each zone and the contrast levels between zones before determining the best overall exposure. Center-Weighted metering measures light from the entire frame but places the greatest emphasis on a circular area in the center. Spot metering is pretty self-explanatory, taking a reading from the dead center of the image (most useful when using the AE Lock function). Exposure compensation is adjustable from -3 to +3 exposure equivalents (EV) in one-half step increments, and is controllable in all exposure modes. (Through the Custom menu, you can set the step size to one-third step increments.) The AE Lock button on the rear panel locks the exposure reading until the button is pressed a second time, or the Shutter button is fully pressed. Through the Custom menu, you can set the AE Lock feature to link the AE area to the selected AF area, useful for photographing off-center subjects.

An Auto Bracketing feature takes three shots of the same subject with varying exposure values determined by either the photographer in Manual mode or by the camera in all other modes. Exposure settings for bracketing can vary from -1.5 to +1.5 EV (values are added to the already chosen exposure compensation value), with step sizes of one-third or one-half EV unit, and the bracketing biased toward either underexposure, overexposure, or centered around the main exposure value. The *ist D also features a Self-Timer mode, which counts down from either two or 12 seconds once the Shutter button is pressed before actually making the exposure.

Through the camera's settings menu, you can adjust the image Sharpness, Contrast, and Saturation levels, in three steps. A Color Space option under the Custom menu offers sRGB and Adobe RGB color options as well.

Consecutive Shooting Mode
The *ist D offers a Consecutive Shooting mode that captures a rapid series of images, at intervals of 0.41 seconds in my testing. I noticed that the camera could capture a maximum of five images, regardless of resolution setting, before slowing down to transfer files from the buffer memory to the CompactFlash card.

Multiple Exposure Mode
The Auto Bracketing button on the *ist D also accesses the Multiple Exposure mode, which lets you overlap multiple images to create a single image. You can capture as many as nine exposures for a single image, and the current combined image is displayed on the LCD monitor for a few seconds after each image is captured.


Built into the *ist D is a pop-up flash unit, which operates in Auto, On, Off, or Red-Eye Reduction modes. A small button on the side of the flash unit releases the flash, while the Flash Mode button on the top panel cycles through the available modes. The built-in flash has a guide number of 15.6 (at ISO 200/m), and 11 at ISO 100/m. This rating matched my own test results pretty well, giving a range of about 9 feet with the 18-35mm f/4.0-5.6 lens I did most of my shooting with. The *ist D also features a top mounted hot shoe with X-contact for Pentax dedicated flash units, and a sync socket on the side for connecting an additional external flash.

The *ist D supports the Pentax AF360FGZ dedicated external flash unit, which provides a range of enhanced features. With the internal flash alone, the maximum flash-sync speed is 1/150 second. With the AF360FGZ attached though, a high-speed flash sync mode permits proper flash synchronization at any shutter speed the camera is capable of. The *ist D can also control the AF360FGZ as a wireless remote strobe, while still retaining full TTL flash metering. In this mode, the *ist D's internal flash can either be used solely as a controller of the remote flash, or can be configured to contribute to the flash exposure as well. When an external flash is connected, you can set the built-in flash to fire as the master, or as the controller for the other flash unit.


Shutter Lag / Cycle Times
When you press the shutter release on a camera, there's usually a lag time or delay before the shutter actually fires. This time allows the autofocus and autoexposure mechanisms time to do their work and can amount to a fairly long delay in some situations. Since this important number is rarely reported on (and even more rarely reported accurately), I routinely measure it, using a custom-built test setup. (Crystal-controlled, with a resolution of 0.001 second.)

Pentax *ist D Timings
Time (secs)
Power On -> First shot
Time from turning on the power switch to the first shot captured. Quite fast.
0 - 15
There's no lens to retract, so shutdown can be instantaneous. It can take up to 15 seconds for the buffer to clear, before the memory card can be safely removed. (Assuming a reasonably fast memory card, the 15 second number was measured with a Lexar 24x card.)
Play to Record, first shot
Hit the shutter button while in playback, record when the shot is captured. Very fast.
Record to play (max/min res)
Time from hitting playback button to the last-captured image being displayed on the LCD screen. Pretty fast.
Shutter lag, full autofocus
Quite fast.
Shutter lag, manual focus
Fairly fast. (Faster than consumer cameras, but some d-SLRs are quicker.)
Shutter lag, prefocus
Shutter lag when the shutter button is half-pressed and held prior to the exposure itself. Fairly fast. (Faster than consumer cameras, but some d-SLRs are quicker.)
Cycle time, large/fine JPEG files
Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at slower speed. Buffer empties in ~15 seconds with 24x memory card. Good speed.
Cycle time, small/basic JPEG files
Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at slower speed. Buffer empties in ~10 seconds with 24x memory card. Good speed.
Cycle time, TIFF files
Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at much slower speed. (Times with 24x memory card.) Very good speed to buffer, fair after the buffer fills.
Cycle time, raw files
Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at slower speed. (Times with 24x memory card.) Very good speed to buffer, fair after the buffer fills.
Continuous mode, large/small JPEG files
Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at slower speed. Top numbers are for large/fine files, bottom ones are for small/basic. Buffer clears in 15 and 10 seconds respectively. (Times with 24x memory card.) OK speed to buffer, fair after the buffer fills.
Continuous mode, RAW files
Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at slower speed. Buffer clears in 40 seconds. (Times with 24x memory card.) OK speed to buffer, fair after the buffer fills.
Continuous mode, TIFF files 0.41/17.3 Buffer fills after 5 shots; continues at slower speed. Buffer clears in 100 seconds. (Times with 24x memory card.) Good speed to buffer, fair after the buffer fills.

Overall, the *ist D is a pretty responsive camera. Shutter lag times are generally good, although shutter response in manual focus mode isn't as fast as much of the competition. Continuous speed is pretty good, and the 5-shot buffer capacity is acceptable for a camera in its class.


Operation and User Interface
The abundance of external control buttons and dials on the *ist D might appear daunting at first, but camera operation is actually quite straightforward. The Mode dial on top of the camera quickly sets the exposure mode, but also provides access to ISO, White Balance, and Resolution settings. A small status display panel on top of the camera reports the main exposure variables, and helps you change exposure settings. I really liked the way the top-panel display shows which of the control dials is associated with various selections, so don't have to look back at the manual or fumble with the controls to figure it out. (Not a big deal once you've gotten accustomed to the camera, but very helpful for new users.) The LCD menu is simple to navigate as well, with only a couple of pages of settings to sort through. Experienced photographers will most likely be able to operate the *ist D right out of the box, referring to the manual only for more complex functions.

Control Enumeration

Lens Release Button
: Located on the front of the camera, on the left side next to the lens (as viewed from the front), this button releases the lens from its mount when pressed.

Focus Mode Switch
: On the opposite side of the lens, this switch selects between Manual, AF Single, and AF Continuous focus modes.

Manual White Balance Button
: Directly above the Focus Mode switch, this button manually sets the white balance when held down while pressing the Shutter button. (A nice feature, it's very quick to set the white balance, without having to resort to the menu system.)

Flash Release Button
: Tucked on the right side of the flash compartment (when looking at the front of the camera), this button releases the flash from its compartment.

Tv Dial
: Positioned at the top front of the hand grip, just beneath the Power switch, this dial selects a number of exposure settings when turned while pressing a control button. In Shutter Priority and Manual modes, this dial adjusts the shutter speed. In Hyper Program AE mode, turning this dial adjusts the shutter speed, letting the camera set the aperture to the correct corresponding value, selecting from a range of equivalent exposure settings.

Power Switch
: Surrounding the Shutter button on the top right of the camera, this switch turns the camera on and off. A third position (indicated by an aperture-like icon), enables a depth-of-field preview by stopping down the lens to the selected aperture. Looking through the viewfinder, you can get an idea of what the depth of field might be. This third position also doubles as a trigger to light the top-mounted LCD info display's backlight. (The use of the power switch to trigger DOF preview like this is another very nice user-interface feature.)

Shutter Button: In the center of the Power switch, on the top of the camera, this button sets exposure and focus when halfway pressed and fires the shutter when fully pressed.

Green Button
: Located next to the top right corner of the status display panel on top of the camera, this button has a green dot in the center. In Manual and Hyper Program modes, this button returns the exposure settings to the camera's metered selections. Through the Custom menu, you can set this button to adjust the exposure by changing both aperture and shutter speed to the metered setting, or adjusting only the aperture or shutter speed. This is a handy way to return to the default exposure if the camera disagrees with the exposure variables you've chosen. - Yet another great user-interface feature.

Drive Mode Button
: Behind the Green button, this button cycles through available drive modes when pressed sequentially. Options are Single Frame, Consecutive Shooting, Self-Timer, and Remote Control.

Flash Mode Button
: Next in line behind the Drive Mode button, this mode sets the built-in flash mode when pressed. Depending on the exposure mode selected, flash modes are Auto, On, Off, Red-Eye Reduction, Wireless, and Wireless High-Speed Sync.

Mode Dial
: Crowning the left side of the camera's top panel, this dial sets the main exposure mode and accesses some exposure settings as well. Choices are:

Metering Selector Dial: Resting underneath the Mode dial, this dial selects between Spot, Center-Weighted, and 16-segment Multi metering options.

Diopter Adjustment Slider
: Tucked in a niche on top of the viewfinder eyepiece, this slider adjusts the optical viewfinder to accommodate eyeglass wearers. (Range is -2.5 to +1.5 DP. I don't know how to translate that into normal vision, but it doesn't quite compensate for my own 20:180 nearsightedness.)

Av Dial
: Located in the top right corner of the rear panel, this dial adjusts a variety of camera settings when turned while pressing a control button. In Aperture Priority and Manual exposure modes, this dial adjusts the lens aperture setting. In Hyper Program AE mode, turning this dial adjusts the automatically selected aperture setting, letting the shutter speed follow accordingly. In Playback mode, turning this dial to the right enlarges captured images, while turning it to the left accesses the nine-image index display.

Exposure Compensation Button
: To the left of the Av Dial, this button sets the Exposure Compensation from –3 to +3 exposure equivalents (EV) in either one-third or one-half step increments when pressed while turning the Tv dial.

AE Lock/Protect Button
: Just to the left of the Exposure Compensation button, pressing this button locks the exposure reading until the Shutter button is fully pressed, or the AE Lock button is pressed a second time. In Playback mode, pressing this button write-protects the displayed image, preventing it from being accidentally erased or altered (except through card formatting).

Auto Bracketing/Multiple Exposure/DPOF Button
: In the top left corner of the rear panel, this button accesses the Auto Exposure Bracketing and Multiple Exposure modes when pressed in any record mode. In Playback mode, this button displays the DPOF settings menu, which lets you mark images for printing, establish the number of prints, and select whether or not the date and time should be printed on the image.

Menu Button
: Directly below the Auto Bracketing button, this button pulls up the settings menu on the LCD monitor. It also backs out of settings displays and dismisses the menu screen.

Erase Button
: Below the Menu button, this button displays the Erase menu, which lets you delete individual images or all images on the memory card (except for those that are write-protected).

Info Button
: Next in line below the Erase button, this button displays a series of information screens when pressed sequentially. Available screens are the normal Playback display, a histogram screen (superimposed over the captured image), and a more detailed information display (with full exposure information).

Playback Button
: The final button in the series lining the left side of the LCD monitor, this button puts the camera into Playback mode. Touching the shutter button or pressing the playback button for a second time immediately readies the camera to capture another image.

AF Button
: Next to the top right corner of the LCD monitor, this button locks the focus when pressed (similar to the function of the AE Lock button). Focus remains locked only while the AF button is held down.

Focus Area Selector and Lock
: Surrounding the Four-Way Arrow Rocker button, this dial controls the AF area setting. The first position (noted in green) puts the AF area selection under automatic control. The second position, labeled "SEL," lets you select the AF area from one of 11 AF points using the Four-Way Arrow Rocker button. Finally, the third position locks the AF area to the center spot only.

Four-Way Arrow Rocker Pad and OK Button: Adjacent to the lower right corner of the LCD monitor, this rocker button features four arrows. In any settings menu, the arrow keys navigate through menu selections. When the AF Area mode is set to "SEL," the arrow keys let the user pick the desired AF area setting. In Playback mode, the right and left arrows scroll through captured images, and the down arrow rotates the image anti-clockwise on the LCD display in 90-degree increments. If an image has been enlarged, all four arrows pan the view.


Camera Modes and Menus

Record Mode: Simply turning the camera on puts it in Record mode. The Mode dial on top of the camera selects the main exposure mode, with options for Green Program (Auto), Hyper Program AE, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority, Manual, and Bulb settings.

Playback Mode: Accessed by pressing the Playback button on the rear panel, this mode allows you to review captured images, as well as delete or protect them and set them up for printing.

LCD Menu System: The following menus are available in any camera mode, and are called up by pressing the Menu button.

Main Menu:


Custom Function Menu:
The *ist D offers a fairly extensive range of "Custom Functions," which let you customize the camera's behavior in various ways to fit your particular shooting style and needs. These are accessed via the Custom Function Menu, reached via the second entry in the camera's main menu system. The camera can hold a total of three separate groups of Custom Function settings, letting you switch rapidly between completely different camera setups. (Note though, that changing between Custom Function groups only recalls the Custom Function settings themselves. Parameters such as white balance, color saturation, etc, remain as they were last set on the main menu, regardless of the group of Custom Function settings selected.)


Image Storage and Interface
The *ist D uses CompactFlash memory cards for image storage, accommodating Type I and II sizes, as well as Microdrives. The *ist D does not come with a memory card, so you’ll need to purchase one separately.

Captured images can be individually write-protected via the Protect button on the rear panel. Write-protected files are only immune to accidental deletion, not card reformatting. Three main image resolution sizes are available: Large (3,008 x 2,008 pixels), Medium (2,400 x 1,600 pixels), and Small (1,536 x 1,024 pixels). Through the Custom Function menu, however, you can set the Small resolution to either 1,536 x 1,024; 1,152 x 768; or 960 x 640 pixels. File formats include several levels of compressed JPEG files as well as TIFF and RAW data modes. A Color Space option under the Custom Function menu offers sRGB (default) and Adobe RGB settings.

Below are the approximate number of images and their compression ratios for a 512MB CompactFlash card, with the three main resolution settings.

Resolution/Quality vs Image Capacity, 512 MB card
3,008 x 2,008 Resolution
2,400 x 1,600 Resolution
1,536 x 1,024 Resolution
Approx. Compression
Approx. Compression
Approx. Compression
RAW data (Uncompressed)
Best Quality
Better Quality
Good Quality

While the manual claims that the *ist D only supports the USB v1.1 interface standard, my own tests seemed to show that it's actually running at USB v2.0 speeds. I clocked its download speed at 1963 KB/second with a Lexar 24x memory card, connected to my Sony VAIO Windows XP workstation. (2.4 GHz Pentium IV processor, 512 MB of RAM.) This is quite fast: Cameras with USB v1.1 interfaces top out at a little over 600 KB/second. I've seen USB 2.0-equipped cameras move data as quickly as several MB/second, but the *ist D's download speed is faster than average, even among cameras with USB 2.0 interfaces.

Lost Images? - Download this image-recovery program so you'll have it when you need it...
Since we're talking about memory and image storage, this would be a good time to mention the following: I get a ton of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. It's tragic when it happens, there are few things more precious than photo memories. Corrupted memory cards can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. "Stuff happens," as they say. A surprising number of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digicam reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...


Video Out
The *ist D comes with a video cable for connection to a television set or VCR, with options for PAL and NTSC timings through the settings menu. This allows images to be played back on the TV screen and recorded to video tape, with all the menu options available.


The *ist D uses four AA-type batteries (lithium, NiMH, or nickel) or two CR-V3 battery packs for power, or the optional AC adapter. A set of four, single-use alkaline batteries comes with the camera, but I highly recommend picking up at least two sets of high-capacity rechargeable batteries and a good charger. You can find test results of high-capacity NiMH AA cells on my Battery Shootout page, or see this article for a review of my favorite charger. The Auto Power Off feature is a good power saver, shutting the camera off after a short period of inactivity which you can determine (you can turn this feature off as well), but even when powered up, the quiescent power drain is quite low. A battery level indicator in the status display panel reports the approximate amount of charge left.

Operating Mode
(@6.5 volts on the external power terminal)
Est. Minutes
(four 1600 mA cells)
Capture Mode
98 mA
Capture, Half-pressed shutter
211 mA
Capture, Continuous AF
100 mA
Memory Write (transient)
280 mA
Flash Recharge (transient)
1603 mA
Image Playback
341 mA


The *ist D is also compatible with a battery grip, available as a separate accessory. The grip inserts into the battery compartment, and provides a vertical handgrip with secondary Shutter and AE Lock buttons, as well as Av and Tv dials. It also requires one CR2016 button battery to provide power for the camera's clock / calendar (the camera will still function with this battery drained or absent, but will require the clock to be set every time it is powered on).

Overall, the *ist D has pretty good battery life. Some d-SLRs do a good bit better, but the *ist D will run for nearly 12 hours in capture mode on a set of 1600 mAh NiMH batteries. Even in playback mode, it will run for nearly 3.5 hours. Using the latest cells with true capacities over 2000 mAh, will give run times of 15 and 4.4 hours respectively. I still recommend at least two sets of rechargeable AA cells and a good charger, but this is very good battery life indeed.


Included Software
The *ist D ships with the Pentax Photo Browser and Photo Laboratory software, which provide basic manipulation and cataloging capabilities for images captured by the camera, and which can interpret the camera's raw CCD format files.


In the Box
Included in the box are the following items:


Test Results
In keeping with my standard test policy, the comments given here summarize only my key findings. For a full commentary on each of the test images, see the Pentax *ist D's "pictures" page.

Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the *ist D with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!

As with all Imaging Resource product tests, I encourage you to let your own eyes be the judge of how well the camera performed. Explore the images on the pictures page, to see how the *ist D's images compare to other cameras you may be considering.

We also have a "Gallery" of random, more pictorial images available for your perusal, showing off the *ist D's capabilities with a broader range of subjects.


Free Photo Lessons

Check out the Free Photo School program for lessons and tips on improving your photographs!
Learn how to take stunning photos with simple pro lighting tips, in our free Photo School area!

In a d-SLR field that's becoming increasingly crowded, the Pentax *ist D holds its own quite nicely. With "street" prices hovering around $1250 as of this writing in late March, 2004, it faces some very stiff competition from the less-expensive Canon Digital Rebel and the newly announced Nikon D70, but for anyone owning a complement of Pentax K-mount lenses, the *ist D is a camera that offers pretty much anything you might want from a d-SLR. I liked its color rendition, found its metering to generally be more accurate than most (albeit with a slight bias toward overexposure), and felt that a number of its user-interface and exposures were unusually well thought-out. It also has a very nice "feel" in the hand, with excellent build quality and a pleasant heft. - All in the most compact body of any d-SLR out there. Image noise up to about ISO 800 is also lower than average. On the down side, its images straight from the camera are rather soft, requiring sharpening in an image-editing program to extract the full amount of detail that's present there. As I noted in the body of this review though, a conservative approach to in-camera sharpening like this is actually desirable, as it avoids introducing sharpening-related artifacts that would be impossible to remove later. All in all, the *ist D is an excellent little d-SLR, easily earning "Dave's Pick" status.

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